In the German parliament, the Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler, gained popularity. The number of seats Nazis controlled in the parliament rose from 12 in 1928 to 230 in 1932, making them the largest political party. The strong showing guaranteed the Nazi party would need to be part of any political coalition. Believing he could check Hitler’s ambition, President Hindenburg reluctantly made Hitler the Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.
Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they had made no secret of their anti-Semitism. As early as 1919 Adolf Hitler had written, “Rational anti-Semitism, however, must lead to systematic legal opposition.…Its final objective must unswervingly be the removal of the Jews altogether.” In Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”; 1925–27), Hitler further developed the idea of the Jews as an evil race struggling for world domination. Nazi anti-Semitism was rooted in religious anti-Semitism and enhanced by political anti-Semitism. To this the Nazis added a further dimension: racial anti-Semitism. Nazi racial ideology characterized the Jews as Untermenschen (German: “subhumans”). The Nazis portrayed the Jews as a race and not as a religious group. Religious anti-Semitism could be resolved by conversion, political anti-Semitism by expulsion. Ultimately, the logic of Nazi racial anti-Semitism led to annihilation.
On 15 September 1935, the Reichstag passed the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, known as the Nuremberg Laws. The former said that only those of "German or kindred blood" could be citizens. Anyone with three or more Jewish grandparents was classified as a Jew. The second law said: "Marriages between Jews and subjects of the state of German or related blood are forbidden." Sexual relationships between them were also criminalized; Jews were not allowed to employ German women under the age of 45 in their homes. The laws referred to Jews but applied equally to the Roma and black Germans.
The Germans required each ghetto to be run by a Judenrat, or Jewish council. Councils were responsible for a ghetto's day-to-day operations, including distributing food, water, heat, medical care, and shelter. The Germans also required councils to confiscate property, organize forced labor, and, finally, facilitate deportations to extermination camps. The councils' basic strategy was one of trying to minimize losses, by cooperating with German authorities, bribing officials, and petitioning for better conditions or clemency.
As the mass shootings continued in Russia, the Germans began to search for new methods of mass murder. This was driven by a need to have a more efficient method than simply shooting millions of victims. Himmler also feared that the mass shootings were causing psychological problems in the SS. His concerns were shared by his subordinates in the field. In December 1939 and January 1940, another method besides shooting was tried. Experimental gas vans equipped with gas cylinders and a sealed compartment were used to kill the disabled and mentally-ill in occupied Poland. Similar vans, but using the exhaust fumes rather than bottled gas, were introduced to the Chełmno extermination camp in December 1941, and some were used in the occupied Soviet Union, for example in smaller clearing actions in the Minsk ghetto. They also were used for murder in Yugoslavia.
In his book From Belsen to Buckingham Palace Paul Oppenheimer tells of the events leading up to the internment of his whole family at the camp and their incarceration there between February 1944 and April 1945, when he was aged 14–15. Following publication of the book, Oppenheimer personally talked to many groups and schools about the events he witnessed. This work is now continued by his brother Rudi, who shared the experiences.
France had approximately 300,000 Jews, divided between the German-occupied north and the unoccupied collaborationist southern areas under the Vichy regime. The occupied regions were under the control of a military governor, and there, anti-Jewish measures were not enacted as quickly as they were in the Vichy-controlled areas. In July 1940, the Jews in the parts of Alsace-Lorraine that had been annexed to Germany were expelled into Vichy France. Vichy France's government implemented anti-Jewish measures in French Algeria and the two French Protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco. Tunisia had 85,000 Jews when the Germans and Italians arrived in November 1942. An estimated 5,000 Jews were subjected to forced labor.
"The persecution of Jews in occupied Poland meant that we could see horror emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced to wear Jewish stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then, in the years '41 and '42 there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With people behaving like pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice."
As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted and murdered millions of other people. Between two and three million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of starvation, disease, neglect, or brutal treatment. The Germans targeted the non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia for killing, and deported millions of Polish and Soviet civilians for forced labor in Germany or in occupied Poland, where these individuals worked and often died under deplorable conditions.
More than 9,000 Jews with citizenship papers or passports from Latin American countries, entry visas for Palestine, or other documents making them eligible for emigration, arrived in late 1943 and 1944 from Poland, France, Holland and other parts of Europe. During the final months of the war, several groups of these "exchange Jews" were transported from Axis-occupied Europe. German authorities transferred several hundred to neutral Switzerland, and at least one group of 222 Jewish detainees was transferred from Belsen (by way of neutral Turkey) to British-controlled Palestine. /2
In the major Dachau war crimes case (United States of America v. Martin Gottfried Weiss et.al.), forty-two officials of Dachau were tried from November to December 1945. All were found guilty – thirty-six of the defendants were sentenced to death on 13 December 1945, of whom 23 were hanged on 28–29 May 1946, including the commandant, SS-Obersturmbannführer Martin Gottfried Weiss, SS-Obersturmführer Freidrich Wilhelm Ruppert and camp doctors Karl Schilling and Fritz Hintermeyer. Camp commandant Weiss admitted in affidavit testimony that most of the deaths at Dachau during his administration were due to "typhus, TB, dysentery, pneumonia, pleurisy, and body weakness brought about by lack of food." His testimony also admitted to deaths by shootings, hangings and medical experiments. Ruppert ordered and supervised the deaths of innumerable prisoners at Dachau main and subcamps, according to the War Crimes Commission official trial transcript. He testified about hangings, shootings and lethal injections, but did not admit to direct responsibility for any individual deaths. An anonymous Dutch prisoner contended that British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent Noor Inayat Khan was cruelly beaten by SS officer Wilhelm Ruppert before being shot from behind; the beating may have been the actual cause of her death.
In the view of Christian Gerlach, Hitler announced his decision to annihilate the Jews on or around 12 December 1941, probably on 12 December during a speech to the Gauleiters, part of the Nazi Party leadership. This was one day after the German declaration of war against the United States, which followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the United States declaration of war on Japan on 8 December. According to Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Hitler had trusted American Jews, whom he assumed were all-powerful, to keep their government out of the war in the interests of German Jews. When America declared war, the Jews were blamed. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, noted of Hitler's speech: "He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their destruction. ... Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence."[o]
In December 1944 SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, previously at Auschwitz-Birkenau, became the new camp commandant, replacing SS-Hauptsturmführer Adolf Haas [de], who had been in post since the spring of 1943. In January 1945, the SS took over the POW hospital and increased the size of Bergen-Belsen. As eastern concentration camps were evacuated before the advance of the Red Army, at least 85,000 people were transported in cattle cars or marched to Bergen-Belsen. Before that the number of prisoners at Belsen had been much smaller. In July 1944 there were 7,300; by December 1944 the number had increased to 15,000; and by February 1945 it had risen to 22,000. Numbers then soared to around 60,000 by April 15, 1945. This overcrowding led to a vast increase in deaths from disease: particularly typhus, as well as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition in a camp originally designed to hold about 10,000 inmates. At this point also, the special status of the exchange prisoners no longer applied. All inmates were subject to starvation and epidemics.